Tumbleweeds, abandoned mines, old saloons, hiking trails, and quirky communities; are but some of the traits of a classic desert town. Add in an arid climate, sunny skies, and a Martian-like landscape, and the appeal becomes abundantly clear. The Western United States has four major deserts (the entirety of the Great Basin and Mojave, and a portion of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan) and plenty of cool places to explore throughout these regions. Here are eleven of the most charming desert towns In America for a memorable desert experience.
Just north of the Arizona border, the southern Utah city of Kanab caps off this quest for desert beauty. The low-key community and quintessential rock monuments are so pretty that Kanab, or "Little Hollywood," became the set of countless movies over the years. Anyone looking to explore the state's many stunning sites would do well to base out of Kanab. Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon is the closest highlight, but Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, North Coyote Buttes (The Wave), and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument (Arizona) are all a short drive away.
With a population of just over 5,000 people, Moab marries a quaint interior with an endless, stunning exterior. This resort town is close to the preternatural formations in Arches National Park, and the mind-melting chasms of both Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. The top-tier scenery brings year-round tourism to Moab, which has responded with an inviting, walkable downtown core, filled with artisanal shops, microbreweries, galleries, and more.
Similar in size to Moab, Bisbee also accents a quieter way of life, combined with a mesmerizing undulating terrain. Bisbee is located in Southeastern Arizona, just North of the Mexican border, within the Mule Mountains, and falls within the border of the Sonoran Desert. Founded in 1880 as a mining town, Bisbee showcases the intriguing aesthetic of that time, particularly throughout the downtown core. Like some other desert towns on this list, Bisbee has also leveraged its inspiring setting to foster a thriving arts scene.
In Oregon's High Desert, the city of Bend just sneaks into the Northern edge of the Great Basin. The innate beauty of this once logging town has helped morph it into an outdoor lover's paradise. Though surrounded by the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, Bend also enjoys around 300 sunny days per year, thanks to its unique geographical location. Former host of the Mountain Running National Championships and named "America's Best Trail Running Town" by Outside magazine, Bend has made excellent use of its 51-mile local trail network, in conjunction with scores of multi-use paths that span throughout the outskirts. Though Bend is certainly booming, it still maintains a chilled-out charm.
Taos, New Mexico
The town of Taos is located in North-Central New Mexico, within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Though certainly known for being another artistic hotspot, as well as a high-caliber ski resort, it is the human-made landmarks that draw widespread attention to this desert settlement. First and foremost, Taos Pueblo is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. This Native American dwelling has been continuously utilized for over 1,000 years. Other unique structures include the San Francisco de Asis Church, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the Taos Plaza, and, mostly recently, the eccentric Taos Earthships.
Do not miss the classic and ubiquitous red rock landscape of Sedona, Arizona. This small city is celebrated for its thriving arts scene (there are over 80 galleries scattered about), its emphasis on new-age spiritualism, a vibrant health and wellness scene, and loads of scenic outdoor activities. The adjacent 1.856-million-acre Coconino National Forest, plus four wilderness areas and two state parks in the surrounding area, provide the playground for keen desert explorers.
Just a stone's throw Southwest of Sedona is another pretty desert community known as Jerome, Arizona. This former mining town is no longer rich in minerals, but it more than makes up for it with its hillside charm. Jerome is part of the 1,200-square-mile Verde Valley and is also a great leaping-off point to explore the Coconino National Forest. Plus, Jerome is part of Arizona's lesser-known wine country and has been jovially pegged as a "ghost town," owing to its rough-and-tumble history and old-timey infrastructure.
Boulder City, Nevada
A mere half-hour drive Southeast of Las Vegas, a different kind of adventure reveals itself in and around Boulder City. The most immediate draw is the incomparable Hoover Dam. This architectural juggernaut tamed the Colorado River and formed Lake Mead - another famous attraction located just outside the modest city. Things take on a smaller scale in the heart of town, which makes it a nice place to relax after Sin City and before starting the Dam tours.
Joshua Tree, California
Joshua Tree is, of course, a world-famous National Park, but it is also the name of a small, census-designated area located just North of the park. This town sits at the meeting point for the Mojave and Colorado (Sonoran) Deserts and is filled with quirky art sculptures, museums, and other strange displays that will make you appreciate the aberrant side of human creativity. Cap things off with a refreshing pop in the local saloon.
Silver City, New Mexico
Founded in 1870 as a mining town, Silver City, New Mexico, now harnesses its Old West heritage with a culture of art and entertainment. Every type of creative outlet is on display throughout Silver City's galleries, murals, shops, and festivals (including the free and long-time-running Silver City Blues Festival). The sprawling forests of Gila Wilderness await north of town, as do the ancient Mogollon sites at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
La Quinta, California
Some people appreciate the raw, dusty beauty of the desert, while others prefer well-manicured developments with ample leisure. The resort town of La Quinta, California, is suited to the latter group. It is known as the "gem in the desert" for its dependable sunshine, mountain views, luxurious living, boutique shopping, and world-class golf courses. La Quinta is a popular hub for snowbirds, but it also serves as a gateway to Coachella Valley and the South side of Joshua Tree National Park.
The desert's challenging environment has a way of sculpting a truly exquisite aesthetic. This setting seems to subtly influence the layout, practices, and attitudes of the communities that thrive there. Though they have overlapping themes, each of these towns provides a different lens through which to appreciate these mysterious lands.